Understanding the concept of a reflective surface: Can sheep improve navigational ability through the use of a mirror?

S. D. McBride*, N. Perentos, A. J. Morton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (SciVal)


Mirror image-induced stimulation and the ability to use the mirror to improve navigational ability for the purpose of object location are considered measures of animal cognitive ability. The purpose of this study was to assess these cognitive abilities in sheep (Ovis aries) as part of a larger programme profiling the cognitive ability of this animal species. Three separate groups of sheep [(n = 29); 10 Welsh Mountain, 8 Norfolk Horned and 11 Borderdale] were trained (a parts per thousand yen80 % criterion) to locate a salient object (yellow bucket containing cereal-based food) in one of two possible positions, from one of two possible starting points. Each group of sheep was then divided into two sub-groups. One sub-group was exposed to a mirror over a period of 15 days (mirror exposed), whilst the other group remained mirror na <ve. All animals were then retested within the choice maze using the mirror, where two out of the possible four bucket positions were now 'apparent' (as reflections in the mirror), in order to assess whether mirror-exposed animals had a more accurate representation of the real bucket position. Sheep exhibited two out of the three archetypal stages of mirror-induced behaviour, namely social/exploratory and contingency behaviour, with differences existing between breeds. Welsh Mountain sheep spent significantly more time fixating on the self-image and touching the self-image with their muzzle than the other two breeds. During the test phase, no overall differences in performance were observed between the mirror-exposed and mirror-na <ve groups. However, Welsh Mountain sheep did perform significantly more correct responses overall, compared to the other two breeds. Although the data did not convincingly demonstrate that sheep could use a reflective surface to improve their navigational ability, the observed differences between groups suggests that some breeds of sheep may demonstrate better navigational ability as well as having a greater engagement with the self-image than others.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)361-371
Number of pages11
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognition
  • Spatial representation
  • Self-awareness


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